Colin Meloy: The Decemberists’ New Album Has ‘A Lot of Me in It’
On the heels of the release of the Decemberists' latest full-length, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, we had the distinct honor of chatting with frontman and chief songwriter Colin Meloy. Calling from south of Portland, Ore., we took advantage of this opportunity and discussed his songwriting process and how it has evolved -- and returned to roots, so to speak -- over the last decade.
From the new record and touring in support of it to the hilarity of vinyl's resurgence and covering a long-lost folklorist of New York City, Meloy was an open book during our conversation. Check out our exclusive interview below:
Congrats on the new album. It has to feel good to have it wrapped up and out to your fans.
It feels great. It was a long time in the making. We’ve never taken so long to make a record, so in that sense, it feels like the day would never come when it was actually out in the world. Here it is, it is now, so that’s exciting.
Yeah, there was a bit of time between The King Is Dead and this. Were you writing the whole time?
I was writing the whole time. I was working on a series of books as well, illustrated novels [Wildwood Chronicles], but I was always writing. It was kind of nice because writing the book became my first priority. I was able to work on songs on the side, which is not something I had done for awhile. I certainly remember writing songs when I was still working a day job; there’s something nice about that where it’s not the primary thing you're focused on during the day. Sometimes my most productive moments would be the 15 minutes before I was supposed to run out the door. Consistently, there’s something about that moment, I don’t know how to explain it, but it kept on happening over and over. There’s something about the pressure being off, you know? What could I actually accomplish in 15 minutes? That would stir the creative juices. I remember when I quit my day job, I thought I might lose it. I don’t know that it was absolutely necessary to my creative process, but it was nice to get back to it and experience it again.
How long ago did you quit your day job and go full-time with your music?
I think I quit in 2004, so it’s been over 10 years.
So in the last decade, do you think your creative process was impacted negatively with more pressure to write?
No, just differently. The whole thing about being productive in 15 minutes before I had to go to my day job may have been illusory to begin with. Actually having a full day to devote to songwriting was a huge boon. And also, to have that drive, that this stuff is actually going to get heard and get out to the world, that sort of replaced whatever juice I was getting from the last-minute songwriting. Now, I had an actual audience and a record label.
With What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, though, did you feel like it was time take a step back and remove some of that full-time burden?
We had been a working band for 10 years. We very rarely stepped off for any significant amount of time. We’d record, release, tour, record, release, tour ... that cycle, you know? I knew I wanted to get off that treadmill. It’s not a negative thing, but you can just see it continuing ad infinitum until your dying day. I think it was important for our insanity but also for our creative work. On top of that, working on these books, it was just something Carson [Ellis, wife] and I wanted to do, even before the Decemberists. It seemed like the perfect time to focus on it.
You've experienced both sides, the scrappy songwriter who has to wait tables to fund his passion and the full-time musician who has the support and backing of a record label. Regardless of either environment, though, the end result is always great, and with What a Terrible World, I'd say the outcome is unbelievable. It's hard to imagine you not working on this non-stop.
Well, it’s not just 15 minutes here or there. I was still devoting time to writing songs. In fact, writing songs can be a great procrastination tool for when you’re writing a novel. It was a long time, it was four years and I got 18 songs out of it. But considering some songs take five minutes to write, that’s not necessarily a whole lot of work to show for it. Once we were honing in and decided this would be a record, we definitely dedicated more time to the songs. And I don’t think the writing in any way suffered when I was working on the novels at the same time.
For you personally, is there a common theme throughout the album?
I think in some ways there is a lot of me in it. The King Is Dead is similarly personal. I think it’s a portrait of myself and my interests and fascinations over the course of five years or whatever. Even though I think the title is a statement of intent, or at least a summation of how I was viewing the world at the time of writing these songs, I think that’s as much of a theme as anything.
How were you viewing the world when you started writing these songs?
I had a lot of great things happening in my life, but then a lot of challenges as well. Also, just seeing the patterns in the news, I was struggling with my own great fortune of having a happy and relatively healthy homelife but also fearing the world that I was raising children to be a part of. I think that’s where the terrible world, beautiful world came from.
Do any of your songs address social or political issues on a deeper level?
The only thing that would be closest to a topical song would be "12/17/12," but I don’t even think that works as a protest song. Even though it came from a place of being enraged and in despair over a particular issue -- gun rights and gun control and the Newtown shooting -- it’s mostly about my own way of grappling with it. Whether that’s a good thing or bad thing, I’m not sure. I could probably be doing more. That song is just me going through the process of comprehending what had happened.
With the Decemberists, you seem to have an appreciation for vinyl. The new album is available as a double-LP with an etching on side D and you released a special 7" for Record Store Day Black Friday last year. Is that something that's important to you?
Vinyl is fairly important but I think it’s sort of silly to put it too much on a pedestal. On really well-cut vinyl, of which I don’t think there is a ton of it in the world today, it’s a really great way to get the full sonic spectrum of music. But old records are crackly and sound s---ty. As long as your’e getting the music, it doesn’t really matter the format. At least with vinyl, though, it puts an obstacle in the constant consumption of music, this never-ending, all-you-can-eat buffet of music. With vinyl, you’re very consciously taking a record off your shelf and are kind of forced to actually do the labor of putting it on a turntable and putting the needle down and flipping it over. At least it retains your attention, which I appreciate. Beyond that, I don’t know. I think it’s funny how much it’s taken over. The fact that our first week with this new record sold more vinyl than we ever have is kind of hilarious.
One of the things I've recently fallen in love with is your interpretation of Jackson C. Frank's "Blues Run the Game." In fact, you covered it when you busked in Brooklyn. How'd you fall into that song?
The song has been around and covered by a lot of people. I probably first heard the Simon and Garfunkel version, but hearing the Jackson C. Frank version, it’s just such a great song. There’s a resurgence of people discovering his music, you know, his album was recently reissued. I like the rest of his songs, but I don’t think any of them have the resonance that "Blues Run the Game" does. I would’ve been curious to see how he developed had his career not gone south so quickly. You see that pattern a lot, those American folksingers have an initial record with a few really great songs on it, and I’m sure he would have continued and done amazing, amazing stuff.
The Decemberists are on the road in support of the new LP. What's next?
My mindset is since we actually haven’t really performed these songs other than random appearances, I’m actually really excited to play them live. I think getting back into the live thing is what I’m most looking forward to. Beyond that, it took such a long time, typically our other records we banged them out rather quickly. This one took a long time. This record was so long in the making and fairly laborious, I have no idea, musically, what’s next. I'm okay with that.
The Decemberists' seventh studio album, What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World, is out now via Capitol Records. You can get details on all the different versions of the record (including a deluxe box set), as well as the band's complete tour itinerary, here.